Throwing pebbles at an elephant

Canada’s response to the rise of hate is woefully inadequate

Enlightened Liberal rule is a fragile daydream
Photo: European Parliament

From the outside, Canada is the last bastion of liberalism: a country that has taken its own approach to the refugee crisis, a country that voted en-masse against a conservative government and austerity, a country that remains, in the eyes of the international community, an advocate for peace.

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For now, this image holds, but Canada, along with its Liberal government, is not in the clear. The country faces the same threats from the zeitgeist of reactionary politics and it would be foolish to assume that the government can carry on with the same agenda and style it’s had since it was first sworn in a year and a half ago.

Ignoring the warnings

Trudeau’s government has been hailed for its diplomacy in negotiating the rise of populism in the U.S. and the election of Donald Trump. Or so the major media outlets would have you think, for what is there to worry about after that “mastered” handshake between Trump and Trudeau? NAFTA is surely safe now.

The fact that Trudeau’s actions were seen as diplomacy and not appeasement already says a lot about the government’s psyche. Trump is by far the greatest economic and security threat Canada has faced since the Second World War. The president down south has threatened to kill NAFTA and has not held back from showing disdain for NATO.

Trump’s immigration policies are also fragmenting Canada’s social fabric. There is a notable rise in anti-Islamic sentiment, be it a father tearing up a Quran in a school, demonstrations outside a mosque, or the increasing frequency of hate crimes (according to both the the Canadian Arab Federation and the National Council of Canadian Muslims). This emboldened racist rhetoric culminated in February when a gunman entered a mosque in Quebec City and killed six people. An investigation into the perpetrators life suggested strong support for both Trump and French presidential hopeful Marine Le Pen.The usual media cacophony took place. Trudeau called the attack a terrorist incident; the RCMP did not. Vigils were held, and affirmations of “Canadian values” were made.

Most notably perhaps, an anti-Islamophobia motion (not a bill, which would have the force of law) was put to the floor in Parliament. But even a simple symbolic motion revealed the ugly underbelly of Canadian politics. Apparently, having all politicians rally around an empty statement condemning anti-social and abusive behaviour towards our own people was too much to ask.

Beyond anti-Islamic rhetoric, Canada is now facing its own, albeit relatively small, version of the refugee crisis. Trump’s rhetoric on illegal immigrants is scaring droves to the Canadian border. In the first two months of 2017, 1,134 undocumented migrants were intercepted, more than half the number of the preceding year. At this rate we could expect the end of year numbers to read threefold that of 2016. The government has yet to clarify what it will do about this uptick, although police presence on the border has increased. A poll conducted in March shows that nearly 50 per cent of Canadians think that illegal border crossers should be deported. So far, it doesn’t seem that the government will allow the public to dictate policy, nor should it, but it has also failed to acknowledge or engage with this concern.

The border tribulations also go the other way. Canadians have more than once been denied access to the U.S., from those trying to go on a shopping trip to nurses being delayed from getting to their cross-border place of work. Even the Girl Guides of Canada have chosen to forgo any travel to the U.S., fearing that border tensions may affect their members.

Promises, promises

Away from global social woes, the current government has already switched tracks on many of its own promises, 30 to be exact. The federal budget continues to be in the red; many of the promised changes to help revitalize Canada’s middle class, from skills training to benefits and tax reform, have yet to even be mentioned; and most importantly electoral reform to move away from the first-past-the-post voting system has been scrapped.

The Liberal government came to power in a manner similar to the U.S.’s previous incumbent. After nearly ten years of Conservative rule, Liberals were seen as a breath of fresh air, hope, a power against austerity, and a progressive vote. They’ve not lived up to that expectation too well, but nevertheless, facing little to no opposition, they have managed to keep their positive image. With the Conservative and NDP leadership races heating up, there’s no doubt that the political landscape will be changing a great deal in the near future, bringing fresh domestic threats to “progressive” rule.

Putting two and two together, one can see how the domestic pressures and changes in attitude alongside the global populist trend can sway the public away from our proud characteristics of tolerance and lead away from a bright progressive future.

Even the intellectual community seems divided. The director of the Ontario office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives said Canada usually lags behind the U.S. by a few years, hinting at the near certainty of illiberalism making its way to us. On the other hand, the president of the Canadian International Council dismissed any such notion by pointing out the resilience and fervour with which Canada has reacted to the refugee crisis. Of course, the problem with that assessment is that we can’t base the public’s appetite, and their future voting trends, on a current government’s leaning. More so, as David Hume would remind us, we would be wrong to assume that we can predict the future based on the coincidental appearance of two events.

The only hope that Canadian progressives can hold onto is the argument that our “Canadian values” will persevere in the face of such pressure. Unfortunately, we’ve already seen how easily such a concept can be co-opted by those with a puritanical interpretation of the term.

International or interventionist

The irony in the entire Canadian debate on illiberalism is the persistent, and false, notion that this is something far off on the horizon. All we need to do is look at Canada’s stances on foreign policy and the military to see that illiberalism is already here and that Canada suffers from the same internationalist dualities as its Western allies.

It seems that Canada is leaning on arms sales to compensate for its financial deficit, working its way to becoming the second-largest arms exporter to the Middle East with $12 billion of sales going to Saudi Arabia. Just in case you’ve forgotten, Saudi Arabia is currently embroiled in a civil war in Yemen where its forces are fighting alongside Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIS.

Trudeau has also taken an aggressive anti-BDS stance, again trading his progressive platform for traditional, and rather conservative, foreign policy values that run contrary to “Canadian values” of freedom of speech and expression.

In Europe, Canada has been playing an ever increasing military role, from training Ukrainian troops to fight separatists in a civil war that has been raging since 2014, to leading NATO “battle groups” in Latvia. Canada isn’t shying away from the escalatory rhetoric that has seen Western governments become targets of massive media disruption campaigns; think of Russian intervention in foreign elections.

All this points to an increasingly interventionist role where diplomacy and domestic failings are being swept under the rug in exchange for a mightier image.

The pebble strategy

With this, the progressive rhetoric has remained vastly empty at the core. Beyond virtue signalling and media sound bites, not much has been done to counter the worldwide reactionary surge. Sure, the rise of xenophobia is being tackled in the streets, but we already know that this is not enough; direct confrontation on ideological interpretations of “Canadian values” will yield no result if not accompanied by a clearer unifying national direction.

Political engagement also remains low and national voter turnout is still under 70 per cent, prime hunting ground for populists. Even so, the biggest threat to Canadian progress is not the apathy of voters, but the apathy of the government itself. It’s the emptiness of actions like the anti-Islamophobia motion that allow the “right” to project its own rhetoric onto it.

The government has signified nothing beyond its intent to fight a charging elephant by throwing pebbles at it: giving media attention when needed, passing empty motions to signify their soft stance, and mastering handshakes in the name of diplomacy. The question remains: will they ditch this pebble strategy before 2019 and start taking concrete action on the domestic front or will they take it a bridge too far losing us the values they now proclaim to uphold?

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